Friday, 15 April 2016

Cosmic abstractions in Kensington Gardens.

Ice cream vans on Exhibition Road. Cafes spilling out into the street. Sunbathers by the Albert Memorial. The walk from South Kensington tube station to the Serpentine Gallery on a warm spring afternoon is another of London's delights.

As is a visit to said gallery, a quaint converted tea house of manageable proportions showing a selection of modern international art with a handy bookshop and a pavilion by a leading architect each summer.

At the moment they're hosting a retrospective of Hilma af Klint. A Swedish artist who until very recently I knew nothing about. She lived from 1862 to 1944 and studied from 1882 to 1887 at Stockholm's Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

She became an established landscape and portrait artist but this is not what she's known for now. Whilst these works paid the bills she secretly beavered away on depictions of the unseen, and let's face it non-existent, realms of the spiritual and occult.

In a proto-feminist fashion she formed an all female group. De Fem (the Five) conducted seances and experimented with automatic writing (decades before the Surrealists). They were inspired by Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy and Madame Blavatsky's theosophy. Movements and philosophies I'm fairly ignorant about. Perhaps some study is due.

The Paintings For The Temple (1906-1916), now seen as her most important body of work, comprises 193 predominately abstract pieces. These abstractions predate Malevich, Mondrian, and Kandinsky. It's highly debatable what constitutes pure abstraction but Klint is certainly a contender for the world's first abstract artist.

This bulk of this exhibition consists of works from that series, for example Altarpieces:Series X (1915) below, which was Klint's attempt to resolve a fundamental duality in our nature. The dualities of good and evil, woman and man, matter and spirit, science and religion, microcosm and macrocosm.

Spirals and sequences were vital to her work. She even designed a spiral temple to house her works. The spirals often taking on a snail like appearance. Birds too. In Dove (1915), below, and in her tessellated swan painting she drew on the iconography of avian life found within esoteric symbolism, alchemy, and Christianity.

In fact symbolism of all sorts is rife in her work. Triangles denoted enlightenment. The letter W represented matter and U stood for spiritual. Yellow meant masculine, blue feminine, and an area of green represented a unity of the sexes. She made reference to German poet Goethe's diagrammatic colour wheels.

She wasn't completely away with the fairies though. She held down a job as a draftswoman at Stockholm's veterinary institute and, while there, she painted The Ten Largest (Adulthood (1907), below). A work on an epic scale which represented the four ages of humankind over two handfuls worth of paintings, eight of them presented here. They're draped in floral and biological imagery and make up the centre piece of the show.

The gallery is fleshed out with notebooks, studies of mosses and lichen, some later works, and watercolours. She chose not to exhibit any of these works while alive and stipulated a twenty year period of grace after her death which became forty two. Her works were first shown in public as recently as 1986.

While some of her ideas may seem like mumbo-jumbo to our more scientifically attuned minds it's instructive to note that, in her time, dissemination of information was not so readily available and advances in x-rays and electromagnetic waves seemed almost magical to many.

There's no excuse to believe that kind of thing now but there's every reason to get along to Kensington to check out the work of this curious, brave, pioneering artist and if you fancy an ice cream and a bit of sunbathing too you're in the right place.

Ha det sa kul.

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